Mutabaruka: And a poet shall rise up from among the people.
The Desmond Allen Interviews
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Whenever the despairing cry of the masses go unheeded, a poet will rise up in the land to articulate their suffering and champion their cause. Mutabaruka, less known as Allan Hope, the name he was born with, is the undisputable poet of the people. He speaks, jarringly, annoyingly but relentlessly, of their longings, their deprivations and their human rights, and they love him for it.
Mutabaruka. known for his biting lyrics
Traversing the globe barefooted, not caring whether the sun shines or the snow falls, because it is his enduring statement, Mutabaruka still waves the original message: "A me one jus' a travel de land wid me likkle butter pan, dem nuh understand." It is the anthem of the lonely and downtrodden.
From the sprawling ghettos of downtown Kingston, through the remote uncompromising terrain of the dark hills of inner St James that he once called home, Mutabaruka proclaims Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba and Rastafari. His name spells trouble for the establishment but hero for the suffering masses, or 'massive', if you will.
The world will thank or blame Jimmy Cliff and his guitarist, Earl 'Chinna' Smith, for taking Mutabaruka's then unpolished, if scorching art beyond the shores of a tiny island where it could not be contained. From the first trip to Varadero, Cuba, defying the jangling cords of diplomatic relations freshly severed between Jamaica and its communist neighbour in the early 1980s, Mutabaruka was always going to challenge the status quo.
It started before that, in the slums of Rae Town where shanty dwellings peeped out from behind secretive zinc fences at the maximum security prison nearby, an ominous reminder of the tenuous distance between detention and poverty. Not far away was the Bellevue mental hospital. As a child he often witnessed gang warfare in his neighbourhood and the sinful activities of sailors and prostitutes in their nocturnal pursuits at the Hanover Street bars and brothels.
Over time the journeys would create memories of Black Power radicalism at school, coming under the influence of the wife and son of national hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey, physical blows and ex-communication at the height of a quarrel among Rastafarian factions, and much later the time when he and a group of fellow artistes were stranded in Africa, of all places, duped by an unscrupulous promoter.
Nowadays, the biting lyrics of Mutabaruka are only a dial away on his IRIE-FM talk show, The Cutting Edge, which he hosts in between frequent trips overseas to perform for audiences, including white people who still can't hate him for chanting over and over "It nuh good fi stay inna white man country too long!"
A prison and a mental institution
Mutabaruka was born in Rae Town, Kingston, near a place called Burial Ground, Windward Road, on Boxing Day, December 26, 1952. His mother, Sylvia Carter, later Chambers, was mostly unemployed, and his father, Allan Hope Sr, worked at the Jamaica Public Service plant at Gold Street.
He grew up at Potters Row, remembering that as a child he played behind the General Penitentiary, the island's largest prison, and on the grounds of the Bellevue Hospital, temporary home of the mentally insane.
His mother and father were never married and he saw little of his dad before he died when Muta was eight years old. His siblings are Dr Donna Chambers, who resides in Scotland, and Sharon Chambers, who works with Scotiabank, St Catherine - sisters from the union between his mother and Frank Chambers, whom she married. He was very close to his grandmothers, especially his paternal grandmother, Alice Hope, and spent much time with her at No 2 Love Street in Jones Town, then called Jones Pen.
Muta remembers the early days as fun days: "We did not realise that we were living in a ghetto, then. Me and mi friends used to enjoy wi self diving for coins thrown by the tourists staying at Myrtle Bank Hotel on the Kingston waterfront. Sometime for fun we would shoplift at the Woolworth store.
Warm water used to run in a gully from the JPS plant at Gold Street to the sea and we used to bathe in it. We loved to go to Rockfort Mineral Bath. My mother liked to go to the movies and she would take me along with her. I used to love the triple bill (three movies for the price of one)."
Grandma Alice had a stall in the Coronation Market and he looked forward to going there with her, sleeping over from Friday night sometimes, to prepare for the big market day, Saturday. She took him to the Baptist church in Jones Pen for worship and to the balm yard for 'healing'.
Muta liked to watch the people there "getting into spirit". He flew kites with his cousin, Lawrence Coke, who is now working as a lighting engineer at England's Royal Opera House.
He remembers vividly the first time he went beyond Half-Way-Tree, St Andrew - he was about eight or nine - when his grandmother took him on an outing by train to Portland. They were up late the night before, cooking and baking pudding for the trip.
Sailors and whores
But there were serious times, too. Gangs, like the well-known 'Spanglers' and 'Max', were features of the time and the young Muta was exposed to their activities. He also saw the nefarious activities of sailors from the many ships that docked at Victoria Pier and the prostitutes they hired to quench sexual appetites sharpened by months at sea. In the yards where he lived, there were no youth his age, and so he spent a lot of time in the streets.
His mother sent him to a basic school in Rollington Town and when he was about six years old, moved him to Wesley Primary School where the headmaster was one Mr Hart and his favourite teachers, Miss Gardner and Miss Hamilton. His best friend there was Donald Clarke, whose mother ran a cold supper shop near Rosemary and Rum lanes.
He recalls the many "stone wars" among students of the neighbouring schools - Wesley, St Michael's, Vauxhall, St Aloysius and Holy Trinity. "Some youth got serious bus' head. Is a good ting guns were not prevalent then," he reflects.
In 1967, he won a half-scholarship and went to Kingston Technical High School (KTHS) at Hanover Street. Ahead of Mutabaruka were boys such as "Bagga" Case, who eventually became a member of the singing group, Home T Four and the late deejay, Scotty.
The principal was Mr Roper and he remembers, among others, his math teacher, Mr Ians. "He didn't like me because he used to go after the girls in the school and every girl he liked, dem like me," Muta boasts. "I got a lot of detention although I was not a bad boy." Ironically, he adds, Ians much later gave his (Mutabaruka's) daughter private lessons. But Kingston Technical was memorable for more serious reasons.
Marcus Garvey Jr, Locksley Comrie
It was at KTHS that his rebellious streak began to emerge, under the influence of black power activists like Marcus Garvey Jr, son of the late national hero, and Locksley Comrie of Boys' Town fame, both of whom were teachers there. And it was there, too, that his ability to write poems was first detected.
His English Language teacher, Mrs Pusey, asked the class to write a poem. Muta got an 'A' for his and she had him recite it in front of the class. It felt good. Around that time, Marcus Garvey Jr, who taught engineering, started a Black Power organisation called the Sussex Club. Muta became interested. Very interested.
Locksley Comrie, who had been a member of the militant Black Panthers who fought racism in the United States, introduced him to the teachings of radical thinkers such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Franz Fanon and the like.
The members of the KTHS group wore red, black and green buttons to identify themselves, and Muta remembers the time when the school banned the buttons. "Marcus Garvey Jr went around and took away every other button that students were wearing, saying that if our button could not be worn, no other could."
Comrie encouraged them to read a lot. Muta was introduced to books like the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice and Wretched of the Earth, which he devoured, and he started listening to the Last Poets - Americans Sonia Sanchez and Don Lee.
He visited 12 Mona Road where Marcus Garvey Junior lived with his famous mother, Amy Jacques Garvey. There he met people like Clarence "Ben" Brodie, currently the editor of The News newspaper, and Julian Jingles, also a journalist. Importantly, Mutabaruka started to pen his own thoughts.
The music of Merritone
Muta also loved the music of the Merritone sound system operated by the Blake brothers. He saved his lunch money to buy records and attend Merritone sessions at the popular Sombrero Club on Molynes Road, Peyton Place and Red Gal Ring, hardly missing a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday session.
The fusion of his poetry and music was bound to happen, even if Muta could not foresee it at the time.
His mother moved to Woodford Park where he developed close friendships with Milton Wright, now in Florida, Paul and Peta Rutherford and Junior Walcott whose father was a soldier at Up Park Camp where, Muta says, he learnt to swim and enjoyed eating the food from the officers' mess. This was 1971.
In the midst of having fun, it struck Muta that he could try to have his poems published. Everybody was telling him they were good.
He ran off the poems on stencil in booklet form and called it 24 Poems, which he walked around trying to sell. At the same time, he submitted one poem to the monthly Swing Magazine published by Johnny Golding out of his father's printery at East and Charles streets.
Golding was bowled over by the poem and decided to publish it. He also paid Muta $4. A string of poems followed, and each of them was published by Swing, which was quite popular at the time.
Each time Golding received a poem from Muta, he was more awed by the conviction and the creativity of the expressions. He could hardly believe that they came from such a young man.
Shearer's book ban
Muta's poems were inspired by an unlikely event. The 1967-1972 Hugh Shearer Administration had banned books promoting black power and radicalism and had gone on to deport the Guyanese activist, Walter Rodney, who was lecturing at the UWI.
Muta recalls an incident related to the banning of books. Word had come that the police would be raiding a bookstore which carried many Black Power titles. The night before the raid, the books were removed from the store by Muta's group. He hid some of the books at his home and recalls that his mother was scared stiff.
Muta and his group were at discussions one day when a white man named Owens turned up. "Wi start wondering why dis white man a come 'mongst wi." It turned out that Owens was writing the first comprehensive book on the Rastafarian movement.
At the time, a small group of KTHS students, including Muta, used to visit the newly-formed Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) in Trench Town. Its members included Black Power activists, and Muta noticed that Rastafarianism was always coming up in the discussions.
They read the Bible, wore sandals and dashiki shirts and did not comb their hair. Muta and his girlfriend, Marilyn Dacres, attended frequently. "She was a very conscious woman and an admirer of Angela Davis." Davis was the famous black American activist who became a cause celebre after being jailed by the US authorities on trumped-up charges.
The 12 Tribes of Israel
The relationship between Muta and Marilyn did not last long, however, and he met the beautiful Yvonne Peters, a St Hugh's student who lived at Whitehall Avenue. The two shared a love for Merritone and the Black Power movement. Both attended the meetings of the Ethiopian World Federation and eventually joined up.
Up to this point, Muta did not regard himself as a Rastafarian. But all that was about to change.
He, along with Peters and Norma Hamilton, a journalist and sister of Beverley Hamilton, a Garveyite, attended a Nyah Binghi celebration in Portland and were converted. "My life changed at the Binghi.
I saw some vibes that really hold me. We stayed there for seven days, taking in the chanting of the drums," recounts Muta. He formed close relationships with the wife and husband duo of Baby I and Bongo Rocky, both now living in Ethiopia.
Back in Kingston, he continued to visit the Ethiopian World Federation. But here, too, things were about to get complicated. The head of the Federation, a man named Vernon Carrington whom they called Gad, began to stress the notion of repatriation to Africa under the auspices of the EWF Charter 15.
He changed the name from the Ethiopian World Federation to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, on grounds that Israel owned land in the motherland and that supplied a biblical basis for a repatriation movement.
Muta took note that the Twelve Tribes spoke of the then Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie as Jesus Christ but that the Portland Binghi had "bun Jesus Christ", believing that Selassie was in fact the Almighty Himself. "We also noticed that Twelve Tribes ate curried goat and the Binghi bun all meat-eaters and ate ital food (unsalted). They were more like Christians and we (he and Peters) started to gravitate towards the Binghi."
The conflict deepened and then got dangerous. According to Muta, Gad went to Ethiopia where he failed to meet the Emperor, while his perceived rival, Ivan Coore, son of David Coore, the former Government minister, also went to Ethiopia and was able to meet Selassie. Upon Coore's return, a political tussle began within the Twelve Tribes.
Things came to a head when Gad called a meeting at a place called Stand Up Hill in Gordon Town. He requested a vote, by secret ballot, to decide who should be president. The bulk of the votes went to Gad. Coore picked up a mere three votes. And one of those three votes was Muta's. Trouble.
The brethren turn on Muta
Not satisfied with winning overwhelmingly, Gad asked that the three people who voted for Coore raise their hands. "I, like an innocent, na´ve, idiot Rasta youth, pushed up my hand. I didn't see anything wrong with it and I didn't see anything wrong with what Coore was doing," Muta can laugh now.
No sooner had his hands risen through the tense air than men loyal to Gad began to hurl missiles at him and to abuse him verbally. "Yvonne broke down in tears when she saw the persecution I was suffering." In the days to come, Muta was ostracised by the Twelve Tribes and, fearing for his well-being, he left the movement. But the Nyah Binghi was waiting to embrace him.
Before all that had taken place, Muta's mother had moved to Central Village, near Spanish Town and apprenticed him to a mechanic at Lyndhurst Road, shortly after he left KTHS. He spent a few weeks there, then walked off the job, complaining that the mechanic had told him a bad word.
That upset his mother who asked him angrily if he thought his "little poems could pay light bills!" It would pay more than light bills, but neither Muta nor his mother could have known it then. Fearing that same anger and not wanting to hurt her any further, Muta hid the fact that he was now a Rastafarian.
He got a job a job with the Jamaica Telephone Company, working first at the Carlton Exchange, before being transferred to Melrose and then to Ocho Rios. He commuted every day. His mother went overseas to work and he and Peters rented a house in Washington Gardens in Kingston. Muta was now of age.
The Nyah Binghi
After the Twelve Tribes ex-communication, he became firmer in his conviction that the Nyah Binghi was the right thing for him. He was finding that the $1.50 fare to and from Kingston every day was becoming a burden on his pitiful pay and decided to stay on weekdays with a Rasta brethren who lived in a thatched bamboo hut at Shaw Park above Ocho Rios.
On weekends he would go home to Kingston.
His mother out of the way, Muta began to grow his locks. He also started to find that his job was getting in the way of his religion. That had to go, he decided.
To earn money, he began to frame pictures of Selassie and make bead necklaces which he sold on the streets of Ocho Rios. Johnny Golding had a place at the back of the printery and he granted Muta's request to allow him to cook ital food there for sale. Among his early ital clients were some members of the staff of the Gleaner Company, he recalls.
He and Peters moved to Burnside Valley, Red Hills, where their first daughter, Ishiwawa Hope, was born. He says she was the first student sporting dreadlocks to attend Mt Alvernia High School in Montego Bay and later St Andrew High in Kingston.
They have another daughter, Ishama Hope, who was born at Melmac Avenue, Cherry Gardens.
As Muta hustled for a living as a struggling Rastaman, fate was preparing to smile on him. This was 1972. He met a brethren named Larry McDonald, a famous percussionist at the time.
McDonald had formed a band he called Larry McDonald and Truth and his gigs offered dancing by a member from the National Dance Theatre Company, music and poetry. He recruited Muta as the poet. Their first concert, at the Little Theatre, was sold out.
Johnny Golding, in the meantime, had continued to be struck by Mutabaruka's poems, lashing out against exploitation and championing the cause of the poor. One day he called Muta and offered to publish his poems in an anthology titled Outcry. The book was published in March 1973 and sold for $1 per copy. He cherishes his personal dog-eared copy to this day.
"ET" Thompson is dead
Then the popular JBC deejay, the late Errol "ET" Thompson heard him read his poems and invited him to the Harry J Studio to record them. On the day he went, Bob Marley, not yet the megastar he would eventually become, was there recording the song that proclaims it takes a revolution to make a solution. Muta says his record was arranged by guitarist Janet Enwright but he doesn't know what became of the tape.
Shortly after, ET was found dead on Washington Boulevard, and that was the end of the matter. Muta went into retrospection. His life seemed about to change but it was not all clear to him just where he was headed. The one thing that was certain was his religion and he immersed himself in it.
He had come in contact with some Rasta brethren in St James and began to feel a yearning for the country life and to turn to the land for sustenance. It was hard to be deeply spiritual in Kingston. Some of the brethren took him to a remote district named Potosi near John's Hall in the western parish.
If Muta wanted bush, he got bush. Potosi was at the bottom of a valley, but to reach it, one must first endure unfriendly terrain, after negotiating a fierce bit of hill. The villagers had never seen running water or electricity there. But who's to know why Muta chose that god-forsaken place to set up home? And could it not have been that it was destiny calling?
Adjacent to John's Hall was the district of Somerton. More importantly, Somerton was the base of Jimmy Cliff, by now a reggae superstar. The contact he would make with Cliff would prove decisive and life-changing.
They picked out a plot of swamp land where Muta decided he would plant dasheen, coco, sugar cane, banana and the like. He would also build a house. He leased a square of the land from someone known to him only as Mass Joe, at $16 a year for 40 years.
Nearby, the raised floor of a former backra house was all that remained as testimony to colonial times when sugar was king. Muta, Peters and little Ishiwawa stayed under the raised floor, what country people call the 'house bottom'. Little by little they built a house on top, using logwood and bamboo, going back and forth to Kingston for supplies.
From a cottage in Negril
When in Kingston he would frequent a place called "One C', now the Mas' Camp, at Oxford Road. Tommy Cowan ran a business, Talent Corporation, which became a hangout for all the big-name artistes of the day. There he saw people like Bunny Wailer, Jacob Miller, Ras Michael from the Sons of Negus, Johnny Clarke and many others.
Muta sold peeled oranges, ripe banana and mangoes to the artistes. Then he revived the ital food enterprise. And he and Peters built their house in the bushes.
But on the western end of the island, in the tourist mecca of Negril, his name was being called in the entertainment planning meetings at the newly-opened Negril Beach Village hotel that is now Hedonism II. Claudia Robinson, an actress connected with the hotel, was given the job to contact Mutabaruka.
That call, perhaps more than any other, would propel the simple Rastaman far from the desperate slums of Rae Town to heights he could never have imagined, to chant his message of defiance well beyond the confines of his tiny Jamaica. But they had to first find a way to lure him from the foreboding hills of St James.